Comparing transcript levels between healthy and diseased individuals allows the identification of differentially expressed genes, which may be causes, consequences or mere correlates of the disease under scrutiny. We propose a method to decompose the observational correlation between gene expression and phenotypes driven by confounders, forward- and reverse causal effects. The bi-directional causal effects between gene expression and complex traits are obtained by Mendelian Randomization integrating summary-level data from GWAS and whole-blood eQTLs. Applying this approach to complex traits reveals that forward effects have negligible contribution. For example, BMI- and triglycerides-gene expression correlation coefficients robustly correlate with trait-to-expression causal effects (rBMI = 0.11, PBMI = 2.0 × 10-51 and rTG = 0.13, PTG = 1.1 × 10-68), but not detectably with expression-to-trait effects. Our results demonstrate that studies comparing the transcriptome of diseased and healthy subjects are more prone to reveal disease-induced gene expression changes rather than disease causing ones.
© 2021. The Author(s).